Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES September 19th, 2020

John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for September 19th: Sustainability in Ontario and More Great Picks

By John Szabo MS, with picks from Sara, David, and Michael

Sustainability is one of the biggest discussion topics in the 21st century wine world.  And it’s gaining momentum. Every zoom interview and correspondence with winemakers I’ve had in the last six months has touched on it, as well as on directly and indirectly related topics like climate change and carbon footprint, social equity and economic stability. Yet sustainability remains a much more nebulous concept than, say, organics. It’s much broader, encompassing a great deal more than farming practices, and the definition and details change from place to place, which makes it harder to communicate and to fully grasp. But I’d argue that it’s the most important program to implement, even a moral imperative, one which should be part of every appellation system worldwide. As of 2019, Ontario has joined the ranks of many countries and regions around the world with official, if voluntary, sustainability codes. Read on to find out which Ontario wineries have signed on, and for our top Ontario wine picks from the Vintages September 19th release featuring local wines. A smattering of other particularly delicious wines in the release follows.


Sustainability: A Moral Imperative

Despite what Thomas Jefferson said, wine is not a necessity of life. As a luxury, non-essential product, it should be held to the highest production standards. There’s no excuse for irreparably damaging the planet, or exploiting workers, to make it. Winemakers aren’t saving the world. The discussion with wheat or corn or vegetable farmers would be a little different. But when it comes to winegrowing, we should demand nothing less than for producers to leave the earth at least as healthy as they found it for the next generation. It’s a moral imperative.

Every consumer survey and demographic report and trend watch I’ve read recently also points to sustainability as a smart business choice. The next generation of wine drinkers will be asking as much about the sustainability initiatives of an operation as about the quality of the wine actually produced. Probably even more. It’s no longer good enough to be good. A truly fine wine today must also be sustainably made. If it’s not, consumers will move on.

What sets sustainable wine apart from organic, or biodynamic wine, is that the concept encompasses not only farming practices such as reducing or eliminating chemical herbicides and fungicides, but also every other step of the winemaking process. This means reduction of wastewater, for example, and implementation of energy efficiency programs including use of sustainable power sources. And it goes further, far beyond what organic or biodynamic certifications require. It also touches upon human resources, ensuring fair wages and working conditions, social responsibility and being a positive force in local communities. It also looks at the economic sustainability of a business, seeking efficiencies to keeps operations afloat. For these last few reasons alone sustainability models should be lauded.

In practical terms, sustainability codes are implemented, and certification obtained, by creating a checklist so that wineries can self-evaluate their current performance in a number of areas, and measuring it against minimum industry standards. The idea is constant evolution, and operations are expected to improve their ratings in each area over time to retain certification.

Since each country has its own peculiarities of climate and legislation and political and social structure, there’s no universal code for sustainability in the wine business. This is both its greatest strength –adaptability to specific conditions – and weakness, which is the confusion and communications nightmare caused by having dozens of different codes in place around the world covering different aspects of what it means to be sustainable. How is a wine consumer to unpack, digest, and fully understand what all of these sustainability certifications actually mean?

But, I feel, as “organic” was once a hazy, misunderstood concept, sustainability, too, can grow over time to become better understood, especially for next-gen wine drinkers who are already demanding more transparency from the companies that try to sell them things. A proliferation of sustainability certifications on bottles of wine from around the world will raise awareness, and with it, at least a basic understanding of what it means.

Detractors of sustainability programs say that the environmental restrictions are too lax. Chemical pesticides and herbicides, for example, are not forbidden. The barrier is set too low. But from my perspective, any program that forces you to take a hard look at your practices will almost unfailingly lead to better practices and a reduction in the environmental harm you cause, and can very easily lead toward near or full organic practices in time. It’s a necessary step, and most importantly, it gets producers in the door. Demanding a jump from conventional directly to organics is unrealistic and bound to fail. There are risks that not all wineries are willing or able to take. But demanding a move to a baseline level of sustainability is achievable for all. And it’s a base from which wineries can continue to improve their practices.

New Zealand is an excellent example. In a short period of time, fully 98% of the wine industry has become certified sustainable. The incentive was that any winery wishing to participate in, and benefit from, any of the New Zealand Winegrowers marketing initiatives (the industry association responsible for the promotion of New Zealand wines) had to be certified sustainable. It’s a move that worked. And now organic and biodynamic certifications are rising. Chile, South Africa, and the US are also among the more progressive countries working towards sustainability.

I would even go so far as to make sustainability a mandatory part of the appellation certification process. To label your wine as Sancerre or Volnay or Mornington Peninsula or Napa Valley, you must not only adhere to all of the usual requirements of any appellation system, you must also be certified sustainable, according to the local sustainability code created by both industry and government. And it would be audited just like everything else in an appellation system. If you wish to benefit from the collective, shared brand that appellations essentially are, you must contribute positively to its reputation not just in quality terms, but also in environmental and social terms. This would add significant value to the shared brand. And, I think it’s the least we can do for the next generation.

Sustainable Ontario

Ontario, finally, has an official, third-party-audited sustainable certification process in place as of last year, with certified wines now entering the market. According to Wine Country Ontario, “participating wineries are audited annually to ensure they are adhering to environmentally sustainable practices in their winemaking operations. Best practices include conservation of water, reduction in waste and wastewater and implementation of energy efficiency programs.”

Additionally, certified Ontario wineries, “must also produce VQA wines, which are always made from 100% locally grown grapes. Local wines inherently have a smaller carbon footprint and also play a vital role in preserving local economies. They are an integral part of a community’s economic health and are woven into their fabric. Sustainably Certified Ontario wineries must also be good neighbours and cultivate positive relationships with their communities. They must be leaders in social responsibility and be committed to producing authentic regional wines. VQA wines are a cornerstone of local food cultures that should be preserved for generations to come.”

Participation is, for the time being, voluntary, like every other sustainability certification in the world. But it’s a very good start.

Look for the green leaf icon  found on labels to identify Sustainable Ontario Certified Wines.

Ontario Certified Sustainable wineries to date:

Buyer’s Guide September 19th: Ontario

Closson Chase 2017 Closson Chase Vineyard Pinot Noir, VQA Prince Edward
John Szabo – Predominantly from the South Clos vineyard, with 10% from the Churchside (for which there is a separate bottling), this is fermented in open top wood and aged in barriques, of which less than 10% were new. The colour is garnet red with notably ripe fruit (harvested at average of 23º brix – very ripe indeed for PEC), with a purity of fruit that brings to mind New Zealand pinot, particularly Marlborough, with its sweet-savoury-tart red berry character. The palate is decidedly county, however, with firm, succulent acids and sinewy tannins woven into the ensemble. Drinking well, but cellerable into the early-mid twenties I suspect.
David Lawrason – This to my mind is the best vintage by Closson Chase, a very fine and classic County pinot that is balanced and refined. It is light to medium bodied, quite smooth, warm and even rich on the palate, with mild shrubby tannin.

Bachelder 2018 Les Villages Niagara Gamay Noir, VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Escarpment
$23.95, S. Schiralli Agencies Ltd.
John Szabo – A blend of fruit from the Escarpment area as well as down by Niagara-on-the-Lake, “Les Villages” is Bachelder’s representative blend of Niagara Gamay. Pale garnet in the proper spectrum, with appropriate peppery spice, he has nailed this juicy and joyful 2018 gamay, delivering the necessary tart red fruit without excessive winemaking interference, Overall, it’s a sophisticated example, a fine prelude to his excellent single-vineyard bottlings.
David Lawrason – This is a light, linear and quite fine gamay traditionally fermented and barrel aged to more resemble pinot noir than the overtly fruity style of gamay achieved through carbonic maceration. It is light to medium bodied and quite supple and juicy.

Cave Spring 2017 Cabernet Franc, VQA Niagara Peninsula Canada
$17.95, Cave Spring Cellars Ltd.
John Szabo – A blend of fruit from Beamsville Bench, Lincoln Lakeshore and Creek Shores aged in old barrels, this is pretty, perfumed cabernet franc, featuring all red fruit with high florality, and very subtle green character, not a main feature. The palate is light, zesty, with low extraction, soft tannins, designed for early drinking/short cellaring.

Kin Vineyards 2019 Cival Grit Chardonnay, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake
$20.95, Brian Hamilton
John Szabo – Kin is a relatively new operation in the emerging region of the Ottawa Valley making fine, crunchy chardonnay; this particular bottling is from Niagara-on-the-Lake, however, though follows in the house line of decidedly cool climate style, here unoaked, all green apple and citrus, with a bit of carbon dioxide to keep things lively. Riper Niagara fruit underpins it all, slipping into the orchard spectrum. Chill and enjoy.
David Lawrason – KIN is a new winery based in Carp just southwest of Ottawa. They do have promising young chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards but this is drawn from Niagara fruit, as many new central Ontario wineries must do to financially manage their early phase. This is a well made, bright, fresh unoaked chardonnay with classic peach, lemon and leesy notes

Queenston Mile Proud Pour 2018 Pinot Noir, St. David’s Bench, Niagara Peninsula
$22.95, Hobbs & Company
John Szabo – 5% of top line revenue from the sale of Proud Pour wines (that’s a full 5% of $22.95 in this case) goes to environmental causes, here planting wildflowers for honeybees, so a worthy cause to be sure. The wine itself is pale garnet and shows considerable visual evolution, also aromatic development, though representative of the warmer St. David’s Bench sub-appellation. It’s all about the palate, mid-weight and silky, with fine, fully ripe tannins and a good dose of glycerin to smooth out the edges further. Seekers of mature wines will surely enjoy this at the price. No point in ageing further, however.

Adamo Lepp David’s Vineyard 2018 Riesling, Niagara Lakeshore
$19.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc
David Lawrason – Adamo is situated in the Hockley Valley east of Orangeville but winemaker Shauna White is sourcing small lots from prime Niagara sites as Adamo’s vineyards come on line. This has a gorgeous nose of honeysuckle, pear and lemon. It is mid-weight, off dry with fine acidity and liveliness.

Buyers’ Guide September 19th: Miscellaneous Smart Buys White & Rosé

Simonsig 2019 Chenin Blanc, WO Stellenbosch South Africa — Stellenbosch
$13.95, Azureau Wine Agency
John Szabo – Terrific, delicious little chenin blanc from Simonsig in Stellenbosch, delivering a bright dose of apple flavour, lively acids and very good length in the category. Delivers perfectly, and more, in the category.
Michael Godel – One of the benchmarks for highly affordable South African chenin blanc with soft and lush fruit, balancing acidity and plenty of breadth at the price. Textbook varietal read and malleable for any or all comers across the food spectrum.

Raimat Castell 2018 Chardonnay, DO Costers del Segre, Spain
$15.95, Andrew Peller Import Agency
John Szabo – Clean, fresh, well-priced, apple-flavoured chardonnay from Catalonia, and one of the larger organic wineries in Europe. This is simple but delicious wine, to chill and enjoy with friends. The world needs more wine like this.

Plano Malagousia 2018, PGI Macedonia, Greece
$21.95, Kolonaki Group Inc.
Michael Godel – Macedonian malagousia is in a class of its own, aromatically speaking at least, with more vividness and pungency in the muscat vein. Not that the grape isn’t wildly aromatic everywhere else it’s just that it goes beyond from the Wine Art Estate. Take and sip it slow; plano, plano.

Christophe Patrice Beauregard 2018 Chablis 1er Cru, AC, Burgundy, France
$35.95, Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.
Michael Godel –  Beauregard is not regarded as the most famous of the Premier Cru in Chablis but this southerly west banker is a sleeper. In Christophe Patrice’s hands it’s rich and unctuous, cut by salinity as per the kimmeridgian soil beneath its feet.

Ken Forrester 2019 Petit Rosé, WO Western Cape, South Africa
$13.95, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.
John Szabo – Perfectly delicious, fresh, tart, lively rosé, ready to chill and crack. Sharp value in the category.

Saget La Perrière La Petite 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Vin de France
$13.95, Churchill Cellars Ltd.
David Lawrason – Great little value from prominent Loire producer Guy Saget, a ‘minor’ sauvignon with simple ‘Vin de France’ appellation that nicely echos Sancerre, if with less depth and definition. It shows granny smith apple, some guava, fine herbs, mint and juniper.

Mount Riley 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
$17.95, Trajectory Beverage Partners
David Lawrason – Here’s a crisp and focused sauvignon that flavourwise is a walk down Marlborough’s main street with tomato leaf, fresh dill, grapefruit, ground cherry and passion fruit.  The 12.5% alcohol keeps it tidy and I really like the precision.
Sara d’Amato – Some days you just crave an uncomplicated wine that satisfies with its simplicity, typicity and flawlessness. Here is just the wine. Mount Riley’s latest sauvignon blanc is bright, savory, juicy, not overtly green and offers a salty, mineral crunch on the finish.



Buyers’ Guide September 19th: Miscellaneous Smart Buys Red

La Rioja Alta 2010 Viña Ardanza Reserva, DOCa Rioja Spain
$59.95, John Hanna & Sons Limited
John Szabo – Classically cedary and sandalwood-tinged, La Rioja Alta’s Viña Ardanza 2010 is beautifully proportioned, rich and balanced while remaining lively and firm. I love the mix of wood spice and vibrant red fruit, and especially the complexity and savoury-salinity on offer. Excellent length, finishing on tongue-tingling, very spicy notes. Lovely; drink or hold until the early ’30s without concern. Tasted September 2020.
Michael Godel – quintessential Rioja at 10 years makes all distractions disappear. Can’t get the words out to satisfy or plug the leak of spilling thought. Dreamy Rioja.
David Lawrason – La Rioja Alta is making classic and detailed wines. This is a clinic in aged Rioja. I love the perfume, poise and sheer elegance of this wine. At 10 years it is showing perfectly and will continue to evolve.

Chehalem Mountains 2017 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
$36.95, The Vine Agency
John Szabo – Maturing, dark-fruited and earthy pinot here from Chehalem vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, showing a deft touch of wood but mostly savoury fruit and spice. Acids are particularly lively, giving shape and structure, while tannins are very fine and lightly dusty. I’d be tempted to cellar for another 1-2 years to allow more development.
Sara d’Amato – A study in the art of “assemblage” this pinot noir is sourced from three distinct soil types of Chehalem’s three estate vineyards in the Willamette. I was particularly struck by the harmony and balance of this modern but not over-extracted wine. Fresh, mineral, salty and very discreet wood treatment.

Michelle Philipon 2017 Santenay, AC Burgundy, France
$42.95, FWM Canada
John Szabo – Very clean and fresh, with textbook regional and varietal expression, all bright red cherry, raspberry and pomegranate fruit, lively and engaging. The palate is lean and juicy, fragrant and vibrant, with terrific energy and very silky texture. A very petty wine all in all, ready to enjoy or hold short term.

Villa Matilde Rocca Dei Leoni 2016 Aglianico, IGT Campania, Italy
$18.95, Woodman Wines & Spirits
Michael Godel – From vines as old as planted in 1970 in Benevento’s Sannio area. The soils are volcanic, rich in phosphorus and potassium for making an affordable aglianico that avoids overtly tannic demands and though the basalt brings a salty feel and earth-crusted texture, the wine is very drinkable. Must try at a gift of a price.
Sara d’Amato – A ready to drink aglianico at under $20 is always going to make my “best buys” recommendation. The tannins are supple, the mouthfeel is round and expansive and the finish offers lingering notes of pepper, mineral and wild blackberry.

Easton Zinfandel 2015, Amador County, Sierra Foothills, California
$33.95, Vinexx
Michael Godel – Easton’s is a producer arguably at the forefront of Amador County AVA’s possibility and probability. Mountain soils, expositions and diurnal shifts in temperature secure the fruit-acid balance. If you are a zinfandel fan this should not be missed.

Terrazas De Los Andes 2018 Reserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina
$19.95, Charton Hobbs Inc.
David Lawrason – Here’s a full bodied, sturdy and four-square malbec that is well balanced for its size. Fruit and wood are well integrated with classic mulberry/blackberry fruit, thyme and spice. Very good value

Bleasdale Frank Potts 2016, Langhorne Creek, South Australia
$29.95, Azureau Wine Agency
David Lawrason – This is a five grape “Bordeaux” blend from the company that founded viticulture in the maritime Langhorne Creek area of South Australia. It is big, rich yet composed cabernet-based red (50%) red that competes with examples twice its price.

Podere Brizio 2015 Brunello Di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy
$73.00, Family wine Merchants
Sara d’Amato – A slick, polished and highly aromatic Brunello from an exceptional vintage. A wealth of fruit is accessible now so no need to wait. Impressively complex with a fine tannic presence and intriguing notes of wildflower.

Monte Del Frà 2017 Lena Di Mezzo Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore, Veneto, Italy
$24.95, Signature Wines & Spirits Ltd.
Sara d’Amato – Ripasso style wine may not be my go-to but this head-tuner should not be overlooked. A sophisticated corvina blend with an almost ethereal presence on the palate. Acidity, salinity, fine tannins and fresh cherry are sure to awaken your senses.

That’s all for this report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS


Use these quick links for access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release. Non-Premium members can select from all release dates 30 days prior.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix
Lawrason’s Take
Szabo’s Smart Buys

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


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